| BURGDORF, Switzerland, Sept 1
BURGDORF, Switzerland, Sept 1 Matthias Sempach,
a 27-year-old farmer and butcher, knew exactly what he had to do
to earn his title on Sunday of "King of the Alpine Wrestlers":
hang onto his opponent's shorts.
Sempach was one of the "baddies", as Switzerland's best
wrestlers are known, who pitted it out in a two-day contest that
drew more than 250,000 people to the cheesemaking region of
Emmental for the Swiss Wrestling and Alpine Herdsman Games.
For Sempach, the prize was a bull. For many of the thousands
who came to watch, the games were a chance to take pride in
The age-old Swiss sport of Alpine wrestling, or Schwingen,
has undergone a renaissance in recent years amid a rising tide
of globalisation and increased immigration.
The sport's popularity also taps into a broader revival of
"'Swissness", which includes other customs such as yodelling and
the Alphorn, said Urs Huwyler, author of the 2010 book, "Kings,
Confederates and Other Wickeds - a Folk Sport Becomes Trendy."
"There's no better expression of Swiss tradition than
Schwingen," he said.
Although the sport's origins are unknown, it is believed its
roots trace back to medieval Alpine shepherd festivals.
The first organised event took place in 1805 in the village
of Unspunnen in an attempt to resurrect national pride, bruised
by the Napoleonic invasion and the occupation of the Swiss
Federation at the end of the 18th century.
Unease about the growing number of foreigners in Switzerland
may have played a role in the recent surge in the sport's
popularity, said Mario John, chairman of the Swiss Schwingen
Net immigration to Switzerland, which has a population of 8
million, has run at around 80,000 annually in recent years.
"I'm not a particular fan of the wrestling, but I've been
coming to Schwingen festivals for years because it's typically
Swiss," Walter Iggenberger, 74, from Grabuenden in eastern
Switzerland, said at the games in Burgdorf.
Regula Von Ah, 21, an assistant at a medical practice from
Obwalden in central Switzerland also enjoys the tradition.
"I like the atmosphere, there are no fights and the people
are really friendly," said Von Ah, clad in a traditional
light-blue Edelweiss shirt, bright yellow sunglasses and a straw
In Schwingen duels, wrestlers grab hold of each other's
burlap shorts, rather like two bulls locking horns, and seek to
hurl their opponent onto his back using a variety of throws.
The winner is the wrestler who succeeds in pinning the other
man to the ground in a sawdust ring, while still keeping a grip
on his opponent's shorts. After the bout is over, the victor
respectfully brushes sawdust off his competitor's back.
There are no weight categories or divisions. The wrestlers
are amateurs and typically work as farmers, cheesemakers and
lumberjacks. Size counts and the top stars typically weigh in
excess of 100 kilograms (220 pounds) and stand over 190
centimetres tall (6 feet, 2 inches).
While Switzerland is best known as a prosperous
international banking hub and a base for some of the world's
biggest companies, it is also a country firmly attached to its
farming past with a proudly egalitarian culture
The top Schwingen stars count among the nation's most
popular athletes, and there is even a calendar of pin-ups.
The number of spectators in the games' wrestling arena has
risen to 52,000, up from 33,000 in 1980, making it Switzerland's
biggest sporting event. Organisers were expecting visitors to
guzzle 210,000 litres of beer and consume 23,000 kilograms of
The buzz around the sport has attracted big business, keen
to support the ancient tradition as a way of polishing up their
Christian Stucki, a 28-year-old forest manager who weighs
150 kg and lost to Sempach in Sunday's final, appears in adverts
for German discount retail Lidl.
"They don't want to be perceived as a German company that is
infiltrating Switzerland, but as a company that is supporting an
ancient Swiss sport," said John, of the Swiss Schwingen
Switzerland's biggest bank, UBS, whose reputation
was bruised following a government bailout during the financial
crisis, is one of the main sponsors of this year's event.
Other backers of the games - which are considered the
Schwingen Olympics - include brewer Feldschloesschen, Japanese
car maker Toyota and Swiss supermarket chain Migros.
Some die-hard fans complain the growing hype, increased
sponsorship and presence of VIP tents at festivals risk crushing
the sport's egalitarian spirit. A ticket to watch the wrestling
in Burgdorf cost 225 Swiss francs ($240).
Moreover, as the most successful Schwingers rake in more
money from sponsorship deals, they may be able to work less, and
train more, giving them an unfair advantage. John concedes that
this could become problematic, but says it is hard to regulate.
"I don't know of a single wrestler who doesn't work. But
there are some that may have cut back their working hours to
prepare for the festival," he said.
($1 = 0.9316 Swiss francs)
(Editing by Leslie Adler)